ABOUT US: We are a family of four. Our daughter is seven and our son is five. Our youngest is autistic which certainly gave us a unique perspective on traveling to Europe. This was our kids' first trip to Europe. I apologize in advance for the long review.
THE SHIP: Overall, we loved the Carnival Freedom. The two most common criticisms I've heard about the ship was that the dEcor was too garish and that the layout was too confusing. I understand both criticisms, but disagree. The dEcor is exactly what one would expect from Carnival - colorful, lively and cheerful. If you are looking for understated and elegant, you'll find it on a line other than Carnival. The layout does take some getting used to, but there are maps of the ship everywhere. If you spend a half hour reviewing the layout of the ship, you'll have no problems. The decks that seem to confuse people the most are 3 and 4. You cannot walk from stem to stern on these two decks because the galley for the two restaurants sits in between them. If you simply go to the right elevator bank for your restaurant, you'll have no problems.
THE CABIN: We had a balcony cabin midship on the starboard side of Deck 6, a Category 8A. It comfortably held the four of us. I would highly recommend a balcony cabin for this cruise because there are a lot of spectacular things to see while cruising (sailing into Venice and Stromboli are at the top of the list) and it is more comfortable to watch these from your balcony then to fight for Lido Deck space.
Tip #1: A common complaint for any room is that it has only one electrical outlet, requiring us, at least, to do a constant shuffle of electronics that needed charging. We found out late in the cruise that you can borrow an extension cord from the Purser's Office that has three outlets. You are charged $25 on your Sail & Sign card, but this is refunded when you return the cord. I would recommend doing this before the morning of disembarkation, as the Purser's desk is usually a madhouse that morning.
Tip #2: If you need to be connected to the internet during the trip and you have a wireless-enabled laptop, I'd recommend bringing it. Wireless works throughout the ship, and you're charged the same per-minute fee as the internet cafe. There are very few stations in the internet cafe (maybe ten) and there is almost always a line waiting to use them in the evening hours.
THE FOOD: Overall, we were pleased with the food. The Dining Room cuisine was as good as any of the five cruises we've been on. That's not saying a whole lot - our experience is dining room food on cruises tends to have a mass-produced taste. With respect to criticisms, I think people just need to adjust their expectations a bit and understand that the galley has to feed 3,000 people in about four hours. For the lobster, expect what you would get at Red Lobster, not a five star restaurant. When you're not expecting five-star quality food, you're likely to have your expectations exceeded more often than not.
The Sun King Restaurant: This place was excellent. I would recommend coming here at least once. Here, set your expectations as high as you want, because the service and the food are absolutely outstanding, well worth the $30 per person fee.
The Freedom Restaurant on the Lido Deck: Breakfast here was fine - it wa your typical spread of eggs, breakfast meats, cereals and an omelet station. Lunch and Dinner, think Old Country Buffet. In other words, not great. For lunch or snacks, I preferred the following options to the standard buffet: the Fish & Chips station on Deck 10 above the Lido restaurant, the deli station, the stir-fry station, and the sushi bar. Cheeseburgers at the grill were also very good.
Tip #1: Don't be afraid to order more than one entrEe in the dining room. If you order an entrEe and don't like it, don't be shy about asking for something else.
Tip #2: Four words - warm chocolate melting cake.
Tip # 3: Be careful to check the price on cocktails that are recommended to you, particularly in the Sun King. We were a little surprised to see an $11 charge for a glass of champagne that we had there.
THE ENTERTAINMENT: We saw the Beatles tribute (Ticket to Ride) and the New Orleans tribute (can't recall what it is called). Both shows were very good. Because we've got kids, I don't have a lot to say about the various bars throughout the ship. We did have a couple of cocktails in the piano bar and thought that Ron, the singer and piano player, was very good. I would also recommend watching some of the movies played at the Seaside Theatre on the Lido deck. You can get blankets up there and have a great time watching a movie. One minor criticism I have is that Carnival charges $1 for a small bag of popcorn. You can get a cheeseburger 24 hours a day, but you have to pay for popcorn? It just struck me as a bit strange.
CAMP CARNIVAL: Our kids loved Camp Carnival. In fact, I think they preferred it to our company. As I mentioned above, our son is autistic. We were extremely impressed with the level of care and attention that he received at Camp Carnival. Our daughter really enjoyed the various activities that they had planned for her (arts & crafts, slumber parties, etc.) and also loved going to Camp Carnival. When you register your kids, you will receive a cell phone through which the counselors can reach you if you are on ship.
Despite some apprehension about doing so, we left our kids on the ship for dinner in Venice, the bike riding tour in Dubrovnik, and our day in Florence. This turned out to be one of the best decisions we made - they had a great time, were able to relax a little bit more than they would have if they had come ashore, and my wife and I were able to do and see things that we wouldn't have if we had brought the kids. If you have young kids, I would highly recommend letting them stay at Camp Carnival for a port or two.
Tip #1: The cell phone that you receive at Camp Carnival works throughout the ship. We used it all the time to call back to our cabin when we were separated. Very handy.
Tip # 2: If you leave your kids at Camp Carnival while you go ashore, it makes sense to have an international cell phone. We used cellularabroad.com to rent a cell phone and avoid the outrageous charges that our local provider would have charged us.
Tip # 3: Go on Carnival-sponsored tours if you are leaving your kids at Camp Carnival. Carnival guarantees that the ship will not leave behind any of its sponsored tours, which obviously was a concern of ours.
THE SERVICE: We cannot say enough about the crew. Time and again, crew members went out of their way to make sure we were happy. Our room steward, Felicia, in particular was the best room steward we've ever had. My understanding by speaking with someone at the spa was to be on the Freedom was one of the most coveted spots for Carnival ships. As a result, I think they send some of their friendliest, most talented staff to this ship. This is certainly true of the Cruise Director, John Heald, who does an excellent job of entertaining everyone on the ship.
THE ITINERARY: We booked this particular cruise because of the itinerary - it covers most of the key ports in the Western Mediterranean.
Day #1 - The Flight Over. We used my frequent flyer miles to fly on United. Because United does not fly direct to Rome from Chicago, we knew that we would have a layover in Washington DC. Our original plan was to have a 2 hour layover in DC, but this made me nervous. Even a moderate flight delay and we would have missed the flight to Rome. As it turned out, this fear was well-placed, our original flight was delayed by 2.5 hours. Instead, we flew to DC the night before our connecting flight. As it turned out, this flight was also delayed by two hours, and we arrived at our hotel room (the Westin Grand, also paid for with frequent customer miles) at 1 am.
Day #2 - DC and the flight to Rome. We spent the morning touring DC, which the kids had not seen before. This gave them a good preview of the extensive walking they would be doing throughout the trip. They did very well and enjoyed themselves. Our 6:10 pm flight was on time and uneventful. We arrived in Rome at about 9:00 am, the following morning.
Day #3 - Rome At A Glance and Embarkation. We took the Carnival-sponsored tour, Rome At A Glance, which included transfer to the ship. We did this tour rather than the more intensive ones on the theory that the kids would be jet lagged and not up for much. Although our DD could have handled more (she did not seem to feel the effects of jet lag at all) the rest of us were happy to have a bus ride with only one stop. Embarkation went incredibly smoothly, and we were in our cabin less than a half hour after getting off the bus.
Day #4 - Naples. Together with another family with kids the same age as ours, we went on a private tour with Guiseppe of Drive Sorrento. Guiseppe has a very low-key style, and we were very happy with him. If you are going to book a private tour at any of the ports, this is the one to do it - I think you can see far more of the Amalfi coast in a small van than on the big busses. In the morning, we drove up the Amalfi Coast, stopping in Sorrento and Positano. We had numerous short stops along the way as well, for pictures or to see various vendors. In the afternoon, we did two hours at Pompeii with a private guide. Pompeii is far more immense that I imagined, I think it would be very difficult to gain much from a two-hour visit without a guide. This one of our very favorite days, and the Amalfi coast in particular is enchanting.
Day # 5 - Day at Sea - As with all of our days at sea, we took it very easy and recharged our batteries (both literally and figuratively). Our daughter never tired of going down the waterslide.
Day #6 - Venice. Sailing into Venice is something I will never forget. You will be able to see San Marco Piazza from the starboard side. Venice is truly an incredible place. At the outset, you have three transportation options when leaving the ship:
(1) Pay 5 Euro roundtrip for a short bus ride to Piazella Roma, the closest stop for Vaporettos (water busses) which are the primary form of public transportation in Venice. I believe a 24 hour pass is 13 Euros.
(2) Walk to Piazzella Roma. This will take approximately a half hour.
(3) Take a water bus shuttle directly from the pier to San Marco Piazza. You will reach the ticket office for this shuttle in about 10 minutes after exiting the ship. The cost of this shuttle is 6E one way, 11E round trip, and it leaves every 20 minutes or so during the day, but does not run at night.
I thought Carnival could have done more to help with the transportation. It appeared to us that Princess was running its own complimentary shuttle boat to San Marco. A lot of inconvenience for the passengers might have been avoided if Carnival had done the same. With four ships in port that day, travel on the Vaporettos was very crowded and took a lot of time.
After take to the shuttle to St. Mark's, we had a private tour with Elena, which we booked on the excellent website InItaly.com. The tour was of St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace. Elena is incredibly knowledgeable about Venice and I highly recommend her tour, which was pricey (260E for 4 people), but well worth it.
For dinner, Elena had made us reservations at a great restaurant called Al Covo, which is owned by a Venetian man and his wife, who is originally from Texas. Because we could not get on a Vaporetto, we ended up walking to the restaurant, which was about 3.5 miles from the ship, and were about an hour late for our table. Because we had called ahead, the restaurant saved a table for us, and we had one of our best meals of the trip by far.
Day #7 - Venice. On this day, we just explored Venice. We took a Vaporetto to the Rialto bridge, and then slowly walked our way back to the ship, taking lots of breaks to shop, have a coffee, or relax. Our son's eyes lighted up when he saw a McDonald's, so we had lunch there, making both the kids happy. This ended up being one of our favorite days of the trip.
Day #8 - Dubrovnik. My wife and I did the Carnival-sponsored biking tour. Basically, we rode 7-8 km through the Konavle valley to a monastery, stopped for some fruit and water, as well as pictures, and then rode back. It was a nice way to see the countryside. After that, we walked the old city walls, and had lunch by the harbor. The mussels are outstanding. Dubrovnik is a great city, very fun to explore. The kids stayed on ship this day, and seemed to have had just as much fun as we did.
Day #9 - Day at Sea - Like all of our days at sea, this day was uneventful and relaxing.
Day #10 - Messina/Taormina. Taormina is the main attraction for this port, my understanding is that Messina itself does not have much to offer. We certainly did not see anything on the way out of the city to indicate otherwise. Instead of taking a Carnival tour, we instead took a bus with a bunch of other Cruise Critic passengers, and paid about 15% per person as much as we would have for the same tour with Carnival. This is definitely the way to go.
Taormina itself is a nice little town, but can get crowded with a large cruise ship visiting it. After coffee, we visited the Greek Theatre, which I believe is 3-4 Euros for adults. In retrospect, I could have done without this. I would recommend this only if you did not visit Pompeii or Herculaneum. Otherwise, you will likely be a bit underwhelmed. Afterwards, we took the cable lift down the hill to the beach. We had lunch down there while our kids splashed in the ocean. We visited several beaches, but we definitely liked the one on Isla Bella the best. This is a neat little private island, and the public is allowed to access a small beach. You can reach the island by walking on a sand bar, but you will probably have to take off your shoes and socks to get there. Overall, Messina was our least favorite port for this cruise, but was still a very fun day.
Day #11 - Day at sea. This is the last day at sea, so we spent it relaxing and getting ready not only for three straight port days but for disembarking the ship as well.
Day #12 - Barcelona. Because the rest of the family wanted to sleep in a bit this day, I disembarked on my own and visited La Rambla, the Barcelona Cathedral, and the Gothic Quarter from 7 until 9:30. This was a great time to see the city as it was quiet, cool and uncrowded. The market off to the side of La Rambla was a sight to see, and is a great place to stop and pick up some fruit. In the afternoon, we went on the Carnival tour Barcelona Highlights and the Spanish Village. We had originally been signed up for the Barcelona and Montserrat tour but nixed it because we were concerned that a 8 hour tour would be too much for our son. In retrospect, I wish we had stayed with our original plans - the Spanish Village is simply Spain's version of a tourist trap. Seeing La Sagrada Familia church, however, was well worth it.
For some reason, Barcelona seemed to be the most expensive city we visited, more so than even Rome. As with all the ports, you should ask whether there is a seating fee or cover charge before sitting down at any restaurants. A 10 minute stop for diet cokes and a snack at a cafe in Barcelona ended up costing us 42 Euros because there was a 5 Euro per person seating fee that we were not told about.
Day #13 - Cannes. On this day we did another private tour, this time with Slyvie de Cristo. We did this the same family that we had toured Naples with. (I have to say that the other family, whom we met on cruise critic, did all of the researching and scheduling of these two tours, and did a great job - we had a terrific time with them). Sylvie was our favorite guide of the entire trip. She took us to a little town called Cagnes Sur Mer, which is not unlike St. Paul de Vence or Eze, except that it was entirely bereft of tourists. There we had a great leisurely lunch right outside the town's castle. After exploring the castle, we spent the afternoon in Cannes, including a trip to a Carousel that the kids really enjoyed.
Day #14 - Livorno/Florence. We left our kids on the ship this day because we thought they would not particularly enjoy a 10 hour day with at least 3 hours on the bus. We took the Florence on your own tour through Carnival. Our guide unfortunately felt compelled to talk for the entire trip to Florence even though she had nothing meaningful to say. She was our least favorite guide of the trip. Once in Florence, we went to the Uffizi museum, which was excellent. We had previously booked tickets for 11:15 am through In Italy.com. If you want to see the Uffizi, you almost have to book your tickets in advance, otherwise you will have to stand in line for at least two hours. Thereafter, we had pasta at a great restaurant right by the exit to the Uffizi and spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing and shopping.
Day #15 - Debarkation/Rome. Debarkation was very easy. We filled out a card indicating that we had a driver arranged for 8:30 am, and we were notified that we could exit the ship at 7:45. Finding our luggage was very easy, and all of the private drivers were right near the exit. Our trip to the city was 90 minutes and 140 Euros. I researched various travel options to the city, and unfortunately all of them are expensive. We stayed at the Hilton Cavallieri hotel, near Vatican city, and paid for our two rooms with my Hilton Honors points. If you have a sufficient number of Hilton Honors points collected, this was a great place to stay. Otherwise, my understanding is that it is prohibitively expensive, even by Roman standards. Also, don't use the minibar - 8 Euro for a diet coke would make even a New York hotel ashamed of itself. After relaxing a bit, we did a quick tour of the city, visiting the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and the Vatican. We had previously booked a 2 pm tour of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. Again, prearranging the private guided tour (which you can do on the official website for the Vatican Museums) is the only way to go - the line for regular admittance stretched at least 5 city blocks. If you have young kids, the Vatican Museums may be more than they can handle - there is no air conditioning and they are very very crowded. The art is stunning however, and if you can persuade the kids to do it (Gelato makes an outstanding bribe), then it is a once in a lifetime experience.
Day #16 - Travel Day. This day ended up being 25 hours from start to finish with long flight delays in DC.
In sum, this was a terrific vacation. I would highly recommend this ship and this itinerary, particularly if you are considering bringing young kids along with you.